Dr Øyvind Bergwitz has researched deaf people’s experiences of citizenship in Norwegian society. They face many practical barriers to equal participation in society, but the issues of prejudice and lack of knowledge about how they can be included are just as important.
What have you researched?
I have interviewed a small sample of deaf people about their experiences of citizenship in Norwegian society and how various aspects of citizenship, specifically rights, identities and forms of participation, can be understood within a citizenship perspective. The survey touches on various topics such as: opinions about integration in a hearing world; the hearing majority’s attitudes to the deaf community; deaf people’s conditions for participation in different areas of society, such as the labour market and in informal networks among deaf people and among the hearing.
What have you found out?
Identity as a deaf citizen is made up of elements that can counteract each other: as a citizen a person is equal to everyone else, and deaf people can therefore expect the same conditions of participation as the hearing population. On the other hand, deafness is viewed as both a disability and a linguistic condition, where communication with the hearing using a hearing aid and lip reading/own speech has other implications for deaf people’s self-perception and participation opportunities than communication by sign language with the help of an interpreter. Based on the findings of the interviews, two archetypal society-based orientations were drawn; one based on a deaf cultural orientation and the other on a society-at-large orientation. These two different dimensions of deaf people’s citizenship were used to highlight different characteristics of their identity and participation as citizens. Despite the fact that the respondents described many practical barriers to their equal participation in society, an equally important problem that emerged was the fact that many hearing people either have prejudices against deaf people or lack knowledge on how they can be included. To illustrate the last point, the example was given of when a hearing employer rejects a deaf person’s job application.
How have you carried out your research?
The interview questions had open response categories, and respondents were given the opportunity to ask more detailed follow-up questions. A sign language interpreter was used, and video and audio recordings were taken of the interviews, which were transcribed and analysed using a phenomenological method. The analysis consisted of several components that linked the specific interview statements to theoretical concepts about the phenomena they dealt with.
Where did you get your ideas and research questions from?
My ideas and research questions are partly taken from general citizenship theory, which has roots in T.H. Marshall’s perspective on the rights of citizenship – closely related to humanistic thinking as embodied in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights – but also in humanistic psychology. In the present day, the rights perspective is largely supplemented with theories of cultural diversity and different forms of social participation. There is also some research into what it is like to be deaf in Norway, where topics such as rights, identity and participation in society can be understood within a coherent citizenship perspective.
Why is this research important?
The citizenship perspective offers a theoretical framework for evaluative and practical social research, social policy planning and special educational measures. The wish of deaf people to be perceived and respected as a linguistic minority group calls for rights that can safeguard their opportunities for using sign language, but even more important is protecting their right to freely choose between different forms of social adaptation. This type of research can provide enlightenment on the alternatives that deaf people prefer, and also help to identify new alternatives.
What future challenges do you envisage for your field of research?
The citizenship perspective is useful for uncovering forms of discrimination and exclusion of minority groups from full, equal participation in society. This always presents a challenge when seeking better opportunities for realizing citizenship. Minority groups’ rights and participation opportunities is a vast and complex field in itself, which is compounded by the major social changes of our time, including technological advances, population growth, environmental crisis, globalization and an increasingly culturally diverse society. New questions and challenges for citizenship research are constantly arising as a result.
For deaf people, technological innovations can lead to radical changes in the conditions for participation. For example, what implications does the development of automatic interpretation using PCs/mobile phones versus advanced hearing aids have for deaf people’s citizenship? Another relevant area of research relates to internationalism and transnational identities among the deaf community, and the consequences it will have over time for deaf people’s national identity and participation in Norwegian society.